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Symantec Report Finds Cyber Threats Skyrocket in Volume and Sophistication

Symantec Report Finds Cyber Threats Skyrocket in Volume and Sophistication

Targeted attacks, social networking threats, mobile device security and the proliferation of attack toolkits are top growing trends to watch in today’s threat landscape

Symantec today announced the findings of its Internet Security Threat Report, Volume 16 which shows a massive threat volume of more than 285 million new threats last year, accompanied by several new megatrends in the threat landscape.

The report highlights dramatic increases in both the frequency and sophistication of targeted attacks on enterprises; the continued growth of social networking sites as an attack distribution platform; and a change in attackers’ infection tactics, increasingly targeting vulnerabilities in Java to break into traditional computer systems. In addition, the report explores how attackers are exhibiting a notable shift in focus toward mobile devices.

2010: The Year of the Targeted Attack

Targeted attacks such as Hydraq and Stuxnet posed a growing threat to enterprises in 2010. To increase the likelihood of successful, undetected infiltration into the enterprise, an increasing number of these targeted attacks leveraged zero-day vulnerabilities to break into computer systems. As one example, Stuxnet alone exploited four different zero-day vulnerabilities to attack its targets.

In 2010, attackers launched targeted attacks against a diverse collection of publicly traded, multinational corporations and government agencies, as well as a surprising number of smaller companies. In many cases, the attackers researched key victims within each corporation and then used tailored social engineering attacks to gain entry into the victims’ networks. Due to their targeted nature, many of these attacks succeeded even when victim organizations had basic security measures in place.

While the high-profile targeted attacks of 2010 attempted to steal intellectual property or cause physical damage, many targeted attacks preyed on individuals for their personal information. For example, the report found that data breaches caused by hacking resulted in an average of more than 260,000 identities exposed per breach in 2010, nearly quadruple that of any other cause.

Social Networks: A Fertile Ground for Cybercriminals

Social network platforms continue to grow in popularity and this popularity has not surprisingly attracted a large volume of malware. One of the primary attack techniques used on social networking sites involved the use of shortened URLs. Under typical, legitimate, circumstances, these abbreviated URLs are used to efficiently share a link in an email or on a web page to an otherwise complicated web address. Last year, attackers posted millions of these shortened links on social networking sites to trick victims into both phishing and malware attacks, dramatically increasing the rate of successful infection.

The report found that attackers overwhelmingly leveraged the news-feed capabilities provided by popular social networking sites to mass-distribute attacks. In a typical scenario, the attacker logs into a compromised social networking account and posts a shortened link to a malicious website in the victim’s status area. The social networking site then automatically distributes the link to news feeds of the victim’s friends, spreading the link to potentially hundreds or thousands of victims in minutes. In 2010, 65 percent of malicious links in news feeds observed by Symantec used shortened URLs. Of these, 73 percent were clicked 11 times or more, with 33 percent receiving between 11 and 50 clicks.

Attack Toolkits Focus on Java

In 2010, attack toolkits, software programs that can be used by novices and experts alike to facilitate the launch of widespread attacks on networked computers, continued to see widespread use. These kits increasingly target vulnerabilities in the popular Java system, which accounted for 17 percent of all vulnerabilities affecting browser plug-ins in 2010. As a popular cross-browser, multi-platform technology, Java is an appealing target for attackers.

The Phoenix toolkit was responsible for the most Web-based attack activity in 2010. This kit, as well as many others, incorporates exploits against Java vulnerabilities. The sixth highest ranked Web-based attack during the reporting period was also an attempt to exploit Java technologies.

The number of measured Web-based attacks per day increased by 93 percent in 2010 compared to 2009. Since two-thirds of all Web-based threat activity observed by Symantec is directly attributed to attack kits, these kits are likely responsible for a large part of this increase.

Mobile Threat Landscape Comes Into View

The major mobile platforms are finally becoming ubiquitous enough to garner the attention of attackers, and as such, Symantec expects attacks on these platforms to increase. In 2010, most malware attacks against mobile devices took the form of Trojan Horse programs that pose as legitimate applications. While attackers generated some of this malware from scratch, in many cases, they infected users by inserting malicious logic into existing legitimate applications. The attacker then distributed these tainted applications via public app stores. For example, the authors of the recent Pjapps Trojan employed this approach.

While the new security architectures employed in today’s mobile devices are at least as effective as their desktop and server predecessors, attackers can often bypass these protections by attacking inherent vulnerabilities in the mobile platforms’ implementations. Unfortunately, such flaws are relatively commonplace - Symantec documented 163 vulnerabilities during 2010 that could be used by attackers to gain partial or complete control over devices running popular mobile platforms. In the first few months of 2011 attackers have already leveraged these flaws to infect hundreds of thousands of unique devices. According to findings from Mocana, it is no surprise that 47% of organizations do not believe they can adequately manage the risks introduced by mobile devices. And, that more than 45% of organizations say security concerns are one of the biggest obstacles to rolling out more smart devices.

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